The chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Rule of Law, Dr. Jiunn-Rong Yeh

“The Decision to Set Up a Prize for the Rule of Law Is a Brave and Important One” --an interview with Dr. Jiunn-Rong Yeh, Chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Rule of Law

  • The chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Rule of Law, Dr. Jiunn-Rong Yeh
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Interview by the PanSci Editorial Department and Po-Han Lee, assistant professor at the College of Public Health, National Taiwan University

Chinese original by Po-Han Lee

English translation by Wei-Hsin Lin, Tang Prize Foundation


One sunny morning in late January, we as a group of journalists gathered at the College of Law at National Taiwan University, getting ready to interview the chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Rule of Law, Dr. Jiunn-Rong Yeh, whom we bumped into right after entering the campus. He was chatting with a building caretaker at the Tsai Lecture Hall. Once he saw us, he led us to his office, along the way telling us about the history of the College of Law, when it was moved to the current location, the landscape of this campus and the vegetation that populates it. Every tree has its own story and composes a unique section of the landscape. Collectively, they built an ecosystem larger than their individual selves, an ecosystem as lively and flourishing as the field of the rule of law.   


“A brave and important decision”—on setting up the Tang Prize in Rule of Law


Q: As the chair of the selection committee, what are your thoughts about this prize? How does it differ from the Nobel Peace Prize? And a further question: do you think these two awards are truly comparable?


The Tang Prize Foundation made “a brave and very important decision” to set up a prize for the rule of law, Dr. Yeh commented. The rule of law is an incredibly important value and it is not something easy to implement in any society. However, there are only a few international awards that centers on the rule of law and reward those who have made great contributions to this field but have never sought any recognition. Even Taiwan’s Academia Sinica has not yet had an academician in the rule of law.


Due to the lack of precedents they can consult, members of this selection committee had to contemplate on how to set a good benchmark themselves, and the most challenging task for them was to know “how to evaluate someone’s contribution to the rule of law.” During the past award cycles, when the committee was discussing and examining the achievements of the nominees, they were always thinking about how to foster the public’s belief in the rule of law through the awarding of this prize, and how to broaden the public’s imagination about the rule of law.


Therefore, the focus of this prize is not and should not be only on how to formulate the selection criteria, how famous the nominees are, whether it is different from other prizes, if it will become an icon of some sort, and so on. For such a pioneering rule of law prize, our real questions should be: “What should I do? What kind of message I want deliver to the laureates and the world?”


A prize in the rule of law needs to project a comprehensive vision. It is closely linked to the development of legal theories, but “it is not the same as jurisprudence.” Granted, it concerns work that can promote peace and encourage dialogues, but it is not a peace prize. Dr. Yeh pointed out that there are many ways to promote peace, but as a concept, the rule of law has its own unique connotation. It’s fundamental normative values “include democracy and human rights but cannot be equated with democracy or human rights.”


Dr. Yeh explained that the Tang Prize in Rule of Law has its attention on “how individuals working in different fields have built and managed to sustain the public’s confidence and trust in law through legal systems and judicial means.” Hence, “when it comes to an individual’s contributions to the rule of law, they should have both global and local significance.”


Dr. Yeh emphasized that “this prize has to be intimately connected with the social context it is in” in order to demonstrate the dynamics and malleability of the concept of the rule of law. The doctrine of “constitutionalism,” manifested by the rule of law, is different from that of the rule of man. It symbolizes the fair distribution of power and its inception can be traced back to the Magna Carta created in England in the 13th century. We can also find its fingerprints in the bill of rights adopted by many countries.


Being diverse not for its own sake—on the values epitomized by the recipients of the Tang Prize in Rule of Law


Q: So far there are four generations of laureates in Rule of Law. They include a constitutional court justice, a chief prosecutor of major international criminal tribunals, a giant of legal philosophy, and three non-governmental organizations.[1] With this pool of exceptional winners, what are the messages the Tang Prize in Rule of Law wants to convey to the general public?


The rule of law encompasses a wide range of issues. Besides instituting or implementing the protection of human rights, it also prevents the state apparatus from abusing its power and assists in the protection of the environment. It is not just about the constitution. It is also about facilitating the protection of an individual’s properties and ensuring that criminal justice can be duly served. Though hard to summarize in a few words, the main principle of the rule of law is to “govern by law.” Through methods such as the interpretation of concepts, the making of laws, and the advocacy of rights, it is aimed to foster stable and predictable legal relations between individuals as well as between a nation and its people.


Realizing the ideals of the rule of law by awarding this prize, the selection committee has so far given us a quite diverse group of laureates. All of them work diligently in the field of the rule of law, at different professional levels and in different matrices of law. Dr. Yeh stressed that the kind of diversity we were talking about points to “the diversity of legal means, the diversity and openness inherent to the concept of the rule of law.” It is not “being diverse for its own sake.” 


For government officials with real power, their jobs require them to pay attention to the authority, fairness and legitimacy of legal governance as a system. Meanwhile, civil society groups should have the confidence in their ability to preserve people’s faith in law and to exact the accountability of anyone who deserves it. But more importantly, as mentioned above, any work done in the field of the rule of law should be seen as a tribute to “the interconnectedness between a society within a country and the international community as well as to the interdependence between different societies.”


Dr. Yeh emphasized that this kind of interconnectedness is based on our imagination about possible norms for a symbiotic relationship, and in the era of globalization, it offers “a constitutional framework that transcends national borders.” All these laureates have contributed to “the growing presence of constitutional governance” which is, intentionally or not, a response to the universality of democratic constitutionalism in the contemporary world on one hand, and a response to the difference in cultural contexts on the other.   


“Universalism and relativism are not two opposing ideas. Their relationship is not all black and white.” Nor are they closely related. Instead, in between them exist a lot of space, the so-called “constitutional space” where adjustments need to be made to address the disparity between the universality of established norms and specificity of a given context, where negotiations need to be carried out to find a way that is most suitable for governing a given place by the rule of law.   


For members of the selection committee, “because there is a wide diversity of legal practices, legal spheres, legal work and legal campaigns, not any one of the aspects just mentioned should be seen as superior to another. All should be evaluated without any discrimination, and all should be encouraged and supported.” This is also the identity the Tang Prize in Rule of Law is intended to establish and the message it is aimed to convey to the general public.   


Are choices always hard to make? How did the selection committee set up its system and operate accordingly?


Q: Since you mentioned the laureates’ contributions to the rule of law, can you tell us how the selection committee figured out the rules it needed in order to operate properly and how its system was built? After all, to give credence to the outcome of a selection is especially important for any prize. How can a newly set up prize like this one gain credibility in the field of the rule of law?


As have been discussed before, when going through the nominations, selecting winners, and finally awarding the prize, the committee was also in the process of understanding and thinking about how people in different legal spheres and at different professional levels have been promoting and realizing the ideas and ideals of the rule of law, in their own positions and with the limited power they have.


Take a close look at all the laureates we have so far, and we will be able to see the prize’s position in the field of the rule of law and to grasp the connotations it carries. The selection committee made these final decisions “not by applying a set of formulas or standards in a systemic fashion.” Rather, it’s more like “by accumulating relevant experiences the way people do when trying to establish case law.”


Dr. Yeh told us that as long as what an individual intends to achieve tallies with the message this prize wants to deliver, there is really no limit to “the legal means” that can be adopted, with the main reason being that “there lacks relevant awarding practices in the world. There are only but a few examples the committee can reference, consult, and compare itself with.” So “what we could do first was to establish the prize’s philosophy and to decide the direction it would be heading in. To have a framework first, and then to determine the realm of the rule of law by exploring its various aspects,” Dr. Yeh remarked.


But a freewheeling modus operandi doesn’t mean there are no substantive conditions to be met. After all, this is a prize that transcends national boundaries. What makes the committee chooses one nominee over another thus “signals the way we interpret the rule of law, and the way we appraise the contributions made by nominees through their campaigns and actions.”


Therefore, the demarcation of the so-called “realm of the rule of law” merits careful consideration. The undertakings of anyone considered for this prize should be of relevance to the enhancement of judicial independence and fairness, the increase of people’s trust in law, and to democratic institutionalism and social justice. Dr. Yeh added, “as a matter of fact, when assessing a nominee’s achievements, the committee will take into account several crucial factors, to say the least.” 


These factors include, first of all, the nominees being able to achieve breakthroughs in legal theories or practices. Secondly, their related work has connected their domestic issues with international ones, has elevated these issues to the global level, and has real significance in relation to global constitutionalism. Finally, in their individual positions, within the right arenas, and taking advantage of appropriate opportunities, they have exercised their power to establish the authority of law. Without abusing their power, they have affirmed civil society’s faith in law.


Q: Since this is such a complicated job, what makes the composition of this selection committee special? What’s the most difficult part of being the chair of the Selection Committee for Rule of Law? What expectations do you have for yourself and for the committee members? 


“For the committee to function well, every member has to have a good grasp of the rule of law, and a profound understanding of the messages this prize wants to send to the world,” Dr. Yeh said emphatically. In fact, all the committee members were personally invited by the Foundation to lend a helping hand. “They come from all over the world, because we need different experts to look for different dynamics that charge different matrices of law.”


The consideration, on the one hand, is that “if the selection process is dominated by people from a single region or country, it can easily lead to incidents of interpretative injustice, which undoubtedly goes against the grain of the rule of law.”  On the other hand, it is hoped that the committee members, aided by their familiarity with the different social networks and professional arenas of people working in this field, will “aim to make their evaluation more comprehensive and objective.”


The purpose of this pursuit of interpretative justice and comprehensiveness is to “provide legitimacy for the selection mechanism and for the results that come out of it,” Dr. Yeh noted. “It is not just about the committee’s representativeness in terms of how it is composed, but also about how to showcase the global connectedness it actually has.” Thus, it’s not hard to imagine that of all the Tang Prize award categories, Rule of Law, with such diverse committee members, is the one where the most intense deliberations about the final winner(s) take place. 


Dr. Yeh mentioned that in order to find members who can represent different regions, cultures, legal systems, and genders, “it is important for me as the chair to participate in international events on a regular basis, because this is how I can get to know people who come from different places, work in different fields, and have a deep knowledge of the rule of law.” Equally important are frequent interactions and mutual respect between legal professionals.


Of course, it is not surprising that during the selection process, the committee would feel that all the nominees were truly outstanding, all worthy of the prize, and very often, each of these nominees would get special endorsement from certain committee members. “So the final result was everyone’s guess until all the votes were counted.” Dr. Yeh recalled, adding that “before the pandemic broke out, we always had face-to-face discussions. They usually lasted for several days, and they were very exciting too.”


Not just to recognize what has been achieved, but also to envisage what will be accomplished—on the hope of the Tang Prize in Rule of Law becoming a beacon to the rest of the world.


Q: Despite their very different natures, the Tang Prize in Rule of Law is often being compared to the Nobel Peace Prize. If we follow this line of thought, how do you think prize is going to shape the future of Taiwan or the world? What kind of impact will it have?


As mentioned at the beginning, “to set up a prize for the rule of law, that’s a very brave thing to do.” It is an exceptionally commendable thing to do, given that similar awards hardly exist in other parts of the world. “Speaking of the scope of its influence, we can say it has not only given an interpretation of the past of the rule of law, but has also found its future orientation and direction,” Dr. Yeh asserted.


Dr. Yeh believes that “the awarding of prize has not only offered Taiwanese society an opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to deepen its effort to promote the rule of law observed in Taiwan, so as to reinforce its difference from the rule of man that governs China. It can also anchor the Tang Prize in a special position, making it a symbol of democracy.” With the influence of awarding this prize continuing to extend osmotically, the prize itself may also in the future become a platform where Taiwanese people can broaden their activities revolving around the rule of law and engage in meaningful dialogues about democracy.


As for the more profound impact this prize can be expected to have on Taiwan, Dr. Yeh further commented that “it will definitely strengthen the connection between Taiwan and the world, especially in the field of the rule of law.”


With regard to how it can help the Tang Prize position itself in the world, Dr. Yeh described the awarding of the prize for the rule of law as having a “lighthouse effect,” meaning “the awardees can provide concrete encouragement and inspiration to anyone working tirelessly for the rule of law in different parts of the world.” Dr. Yeh underscored that “when selecting winners, the committee also have to think about what kind of message its decision will send to the international community.”


In other words, “what the Tang Prize in Rule of Law concerns is not only the laureates’ achievements, but also the contexts and processes that helped yield these achievements. They refer to factors such as research, resources, dynamics, and legitimacy. For a recipient of this prize, it is a recognition of what he/she has achieved in the past, and an envision of what he/she will accomplish in the future. Indeed, one of the goals of awarding this prize is to increase the visibility of the ideals and principles underpinning the rule of law. From this point of view, “this prize isn’t really like the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor should it be turned into a version of it.”


Finally, Dr. Yeh wanted to remind us that the rule of law is a fluid concept. Therefore, we need to consider how unique each society is, and how this uniqueness can be used to promote the rule of law in a global context.  For this reason, it is unlikely that the rule of law in one place can be seen as an indication of for what to expect in another. A more important mission for the prize, therefore, should be “to keep upholding and internalizing, in the next ten to twenty year, the vision and courage Tang Prize Foundation has demonstrated, and to win the recognition and support of people in Taiwan. Only in this way can the Tang Prize in Rule of Law find its footprints in every corner of Taiwanes


[1] Dr. Albie Sachs, former justice on the South Africa’s Constitutional Court, won the inaugural Tang Prize in Rule of Law in 2014. In 2016, the prize went to Madame Louise Arbour, former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. In 2018, Prof. Joseph Raz, a legal philosopher known for his defense of legal positivism, was named the recipient of this prize. In 2020, three NGOs, Bangladesh’s Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, Colombia’s Dejusticia: The Center for Law, Justice and Society, and Lebanon’s The Legal Agenda, were jointly awarded this prize.


◾️ The Mandarin original: